A few thoughts on the Queen James Bible

In December 2012, media outlets reported the publication of a new translation of the Bible, known as the Queen James Bible. This translation, based on the King James Version, was, according to the editors, named because King James was “known amongst friends and courtiers as ‘Queen James’ because of his many gay lovers” (http://queenjamesbible.com/gay-bible/). In fact, only a few verses differ in any way from the King James Bible: those which have frequently been interpreted as pertaining to same-sex activity, and have been used to “revile” LGBT people.

The anonymous translators of the Queen James Bible have chosen mostly to reproduce the text of the King James Bible since, as they note on their webpage, “Some claim the language of the KJV is antiquated, but we believe it is poetic, traditional, and ceremonial. Christianity is an ancient tradition, and the King James and resultant Queen James versions remind us and keep us connected to that tradition” (http://queenjamesbible.com/gay-bible/).

However, they unambiguously claim, “The Bible says nothing about homosexuality” (http://queenjamesbible.com/gay-bible/). In an account familiar to many biblical scholars and queer critics, the editors hold that the verses translated to mention homosexuality in many English versions of the Bible are actually referring to more specific acts, such as anal rape, inhospitality (in the case of the Sodom narrative), and idolatrous practices involving prostitutes. The translations rendered in the QJB are not revolutionary: they will be familiar to those who have done reading in the area of queer biblical interpretation, and know the broader literature about the problems of translating terms such as malakoi (which seems, elsewhere, to mean something like “soft ones”).

The stated aim of the editors was to create a Bible that could not be used as a weapon against LGBT people, but without compromising the integrity of the text: “We … refused to just say ‘that’s outdated’ and omit something. Yes, things like Leviticus are horribly outdated, but that doesn’t stop people from citing them. We wanted our Bible bulletproof from the ones shooting the bullets” (http://queenjamesbible.com/gay-bible/). In short, they say, “We edited the Bible to prevent homophobic interpretations” (http://queenjamesbible.com/gay-bible/); “We edited those eight verses in a way that makes homophobic interpretations impossible” (http://queenjamesbible.com/).

In some respects, this seems laudable. But do we lose something when we insist that the Bible is not ambiguous about these or other matters? Postcolonial interpreters such as R.S. Sugirtharajah have noted that one of the problems with classic liberation theologies has been their assumption that the Bible is unproblematically emancipatory, incontrovertibly on the side of poor and marginalized people (Sugirtharajah 2002: 103-5, 114-7). In fact, hold Sugirtharajah, Kwok Pui-lan and others, even if there are strands in the Bible which promote God’s option for the excluded and oppressed, and which represent a resistance to empire in its various manifestations, there are also strands which appear to sanction imperial power, authoritarianism, violence and genocide (Kwok 2005: 7-8) – and which have certainly been used in this way. As Sugirtharajah says, “The Bible itself is part of the conundrum” (Sugirtharajah 2002: 100). The key for Sugirtharajah is that the Bible is a chastened set of texts, one which cannot unproblematically be understood as promoting or negating the goods of marginalized people (Sugirtharajah 2002: 101). Along somewhat similar lines, Tim Gorringe holds that, given the mixed-up history and genealogy of the biblical texts, their production and redaction by authors and editors living in a wide range of social, cultural and political contexts, it would be surprising indeed if the Bible could be understood as unambiguously endorsing only one single ideology or agenda. This, argues Gorringe, after Karl Barth, is precisely its importance: the Bible has built into it a sense of its own provisionality and lack: it “represents a palimpsest of ideologies … This text is not in a position to tout for any one particular ideology” (Gorringe 2004: 117). Furthermore, “To call a collection of texts ‘the Word of God’ is to say that such a possibility of dissonance is permanent and thorough going, that these texts resist every attempt at colonization and all forms of hegemony” (Gorringe 2004: 118).

The editors of the Queen James Bible have attempted to remove any ambiguity from the eight verses which they identify as the ones commonly used to oppress LGBT people. Some of their translations are more persuasive than others: for example, there seems to be quite a lot of behind-the-scenes justification going on in changing Jude 1:7’s denunciation of “going after strange flesh” as “going after nonhuman flesh”. The authors are following the well-attested tradition that the “sin of Sodom” might be understood as sex between humans and angels, not (male) humans and (male) angelic visitors. In other words, it was the fact that the men of Sodom raped angels that was the problem, not the male-male sexual activity itself. But to write “nonhuman flesh” into Jude 1:7 explicitly might be to remove the uncertainty from the text itself. Jude 1:7’s sarkos heteras might most obviously be translated “different flesh” – “heteras” being the Greek root of the English word “heterosexual”, people attracted to those of a different sex from themselves. Different flesh might indeed conceivably imply nonhuman flesh, but this is by no means self-evident. After all, Jude is a notoriously odd, trippy text in the first place; to try to remove its ambiguity seems like a particularly unimaginative thing to do.

Removing the ambiguity from the Bible does a disservice to it as a mixed-up, ambiguous set of texts, and to us as readers and interpreters. The authors note that they haven’t retranslated any other verses, only those to do with terms often translated as homosexuality. They might argue that there are good reasons for doing this: if people tend to be killed by guns, isn’t it better to take the guns away from those who might shoot them rather than simply instigating a debate about gun safety and the philosophical reasons for the legitimacy of keeping guns in the first place? Likewise, for as long as LGBT people continue to be abused, hurt and even killed by those who find divine warrant in the Bible for believing that homosexuality is wrong, isn’t it better to take the Bible away from them or make it impossible for them to use it in that way?

But this is to miss part of the issue. Oddly, despite their insistence that homosexuality is not really mentioned in the Bible, but has been read into it by translators and interpreters, the editors of the Queen James Bible don’t address the problem of naturalized homophobia which will, presumably, continue to exist even if the Bible no longer seems to reject homosexuality. After all, it’s not what goes into the body that defiles, but what comes out. It’s not the verses on homosexuality in the Bible which cause people to be homophobic; the verses are interpreted that way because of people’s pre-existing homophobic tendencies. Changing the translation of those verses won’t, in itself, remove the rot at the heart of humanity.

Okay, but perhaps it’s symbolic: a signal that the Queen James Bible’s translations of these verses are no more unlikely, and no less legitimate, than some of the other translations rendered over time. And, we might add, if the QJB translation prompts people to reconsider just how incontrovertible those other translations are, isn’t that a good thing?

To this I’d say an emphatic “yes”. But adding another possibility into the mix doesn’t seem to be what the QJB editors want to do. In fact, they seem to want to say that their translations are, emphatically, better ones: more accurate, complete and final ones. In their online editors’ notes, they make claims like, “Had the verses read as follows, there would be no confusion”, and “Romans is our most major editing, but also one of our most powerfully free of interpretive ambiguity”. According to the QJB editors, the texts which seem to condemn homosexuality activity are actually condemning other things: promiscuity, for example. This seems to continue a set of appeals to the Bible as an ultimate authority or arbiter which Sugirtharajah and others call into question: the sense from the QJB editors seems to be that the problem (i.e. homophobia) could not possibly exist in the text itself; it must have arisen because of poor translation.

But as queer scholars and others have often argued, that nice neat solution might not work. As Timothy R. Koch has argued, attempts to settle once and for all what the Bible really says about homosexuality might be figured as nothing but a “pissing contest” (Koch 2001: 12). Such attempts do not address broader questions about the role of the reader in interpretation, and – ultimately – what it is and is not legitimate to expect the Bible to do and to be. Furthermore, as Michael Carden has noted, the Bible actually loses something if we attempt to sanitize and bowdlerize it of everything we don’t like, and this does it a disservice: the Bible just is an ancient, troubling, sometimes remote set of texts. Of Genesis, he notes that it “comes from an ancient and alien culture and if there are aspects of that culture that shock and dismay today then so be it” (Carden 2006: 25).

Strangely enough, the QJB editors themselves acknowledge this: “The Queen James Bible resolves any homophobic interpretations of the Bible, but the Bible is still filled with inequality and even contradiction that we have not addressed. No Bible is perfect, including this one” (http://queenjamesbible.com/gay-bible/). The Bible will still be troubling, capable of being used violently and oppressively – but just not in the one specific area of homophobia. Indeed, they go on, “We wanted to make a book filled with the word of God that nobody could use to incorrectly condemn God’s LGBT children, and we succeeded” (http://queenjamesbible.com/gay-bible/).

Am I being unfair to the QJB editors? Might there be good and pragmatic reasons for doing the kind of thing they want to do, if it means that even a few LGBT people escape being attacked and abused? Or does their project fail to understand the Bible for what it is: queer, remote, troubling, problematic, and not "belonging" to LGBT people any more or less than it does to their detractors?


Carden, Michael (2006), “Genesis / Bereshit”, in Guest, Deryn, Robert E. Goss, Mona West and Thomas Bohache (eds.) (2006), The Queer Bible Commentary, London: SCM Press, 21-60

Gorringe, T.J. (2004), Furthering Humanity: A Theology of Culture, Aldershot: Ashgate

Koch, Timothy R. (2001), “A Homoerotic Approach to Scripture”, Theology and Sexuality 7.14 (March 2001), 10-22

Kwok Pui-lan (2005), Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology, London: SCM Press

Queen James Bible website: http://queenjamesbible.com/

Sugirtharajah, R.S. (2002), Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation, Oxford: Oxford University Press